Why I Read It: This is not related to Fables in any way, but I wanted to go ahead and read this once I’d caught up on the Fables hardcovers and wouldn’t have any Fables stories to read for a while. Again, this has nothing to do with that graphic novel series; it’s just a matter of wanting to space my Willingham reading out a bit. My husband picked this up when it first came out, only because Willingham wrote it, and it’s been sitting in HIS TBR for a while. I just decided to rescue it!
The premise: ganked from BN.com: Down the Mysterly River is the children’s book debut of Bill Willingham, the creator of the #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novel series Fables. Complete with illustrations by Fables artist Mark Buckingham, it is a spirited, highly original tale of adventure, suspense, and everlasting friendship.
Max “the Wolf” is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat) — all of whom talk — and who are as clueless as Max.
Before long, Max and his friends are on the run from a relentless group of hunters and their deadly hounds. Armed with powerful blue swords and known as the Blue Cutters, these hunters capture and change the very essence of their prey. For what purpose, Max can’t guess. But unless he can solve the mystery of the strange forested world he’s landed in, Max may find himself and his friends changed beyond recognition, lost in a lost world…
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Nay. While it’s pretty obvious where the book is going from the start, I won’t spoil anything major, simply because it’s a short fast read and you’ll guess it on your own, and I don’t want to rob you from guessing it on your own. However, if you’re in a hurry, just skip to “My Rating” and you’ll be in good shape. Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: This is a cute, entertaining, yet slightly violent book for what I’m assuming is a middle-grade audience. Middle-grade, in my mind, is pre-teen. Laura Backes defines middle grade as protagonists under 12 years of age (which would make protagonists over 12 years of age young adult; sounds like we agree for the most part). She also goes on to say:
The author of the true, classic middle grade novel does not worry about vocabulary choices or simple sentence structure; once children are ready for these books they are good readers. Middle grade novels are characterized by the type of conflict encountered by the main character. Children in the primary grades are still focused inward, and the conflicts in their books reflect that. While themes range from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers, characters are learning how they operate within their own world. They are solidifying their own identity, experiencing the physical and psychological changes of puberty, taking on new responsibilities all within the boundaries of their family, friends and neighborhood. Yes, your character needs to grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are on the inside. Middle grade readers are beginning to learn who they are, what they think. Their books need to mirror their personal experience.
You can read her whole article/definition here.
So, yeah… I imagine that describes Down the Mysterly River? It’s definitely about identity, and Max’s journey and his discoveries, while reflecting a more typical quest type fantasy, also are a reflection for his own growing pains and what’s he learning about himself and his world and his place in it.
But that’s all heady stuff.
The story starts off rather straight forward: Max the Wolf (a human boy, make no mistake), realizes he doesn’t know where he is, so he uses all the survival techniques he’s learned in Boy Scouts to figure out where he is and what to do. I rather found this charming. The details regarding his survival techniques, as well as the things it makes sense for him to know, really grounded me in his character and his situation. During this, he reflects on his past adventures, which had the unfortunate effect of making this reader fear she’d missed some previous books, but then I snapped out of it quite quickly. Rather, it’s a clue, and a fairly obvious one at that. No, no, I won’t spoil anything, don’t worry. But as Max reflects on his adventures, I did wonder if perhaps the author didn’t choose Max’s name as perhaps a nod to Where the Wild Things Are, perhaps a more orderly, less rambunctious Max in this tale?
Then various things got me thinking about other literary-ish things: the fact that Max is a Boy Detective made me think of Neil Gaiman’s Dead Boy Detectives, as introduced in the Sandman comic book series. Which, of course, made me think Max was dead and this was all an afterlife.
Nope! No spoilers!
During Max’s journey, he meets companions (of course he does). First is Banderbrock, the warrior badger, and then there’s McTavish, the barnyard king cat who’s quite full of himself (as all cats are). The book has fun bits of humor to it, as evidenced by this exchange between Banderbrock and McTavish (page 81):
“I am serious. On my worst day, I could beat a sackful of badgers. I could beat you if I was two days dead, rotting, and partially eaten.”
“What do you mean if you were dead and rotting>” Banderbrock said. “The way you smell, you already are.”
Then we meet Walden the bear, who was once a sheriff in his hometown, and who has woeful tales of trying to apprehend the dastardly Rake but always, always failing. Still, Walden also provides his own comic relief (page 89):
Then he introduced himself as Max the Wolf, being very careful to explain that he wasn’t trying to pass himself off as a real wolf, which was good, since Walden was pretty sure impersonating a wolf was at least a misdemeanor offense.
Oh yes, there’s plenty to chuckle over. Like McTavish’s sheer ability to act like a cat (page 93):
As they walked McTavish would constantly dash off like a rocket, rejoining them later with a fat mouse or bird in his jaws. It appeared that even talking cats were ultimately cat-like, and McTavish seemed incapable of eating anything without first dragging it back to show the group.
I also found myself fascinated that we had a version of the Christian God in this story. There’s a few references, but one of Banderbrock’s folk tales about his people clearly takes place in the Garden of Eden. Not that it HAS to be the Garden of Eden. I could be reading too much into it, after all, it I was entertained by the notion, especially after we meet the Eggman and learn what his role is, especially since Noah’s flood is referenced later (no spoilers!).
The Eggman, for the record, reminds me of Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max in The Princess Bride movie. Seriously, I dare you to read this without picturing/hearing that character in your head as the Eggman!
Without getting too far into spoilers, I can say this story is about creation, and not necessarily of the religious sort. Some of the commentary is quite fascinating, and I’d love to quote it here but for fear of spoiling the main plot. Suffice it to say that even though I guessed mostly what was happening and why, there were still little surprises to enjoy. The creation talk was just part of it.
My Rating: 7 – Good Read
Down the Mysterly River was utterly enjoyable, but I should note: this is clearly a book for younger readers. Not even YA, but rather middle grade. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the mystery of the book is quite easy to solve, and there’s something to be said if one is adult reading it as an adult rather than reading it with a child. I saw one Amazon review where the reviewer admitted the book didn’t do much for him, but his son absolutely loved it. And indeed, what makes the mystery so easy for adult readers to guess is something that younger readers have probably never come across before, and while I was happily charmed as a jaded reader, coming to something like this for the first time, I imagine, would be an amazing experience. The book does have some savage moments, but they work well in context, especially since it involves talking animals still acting like animals. I don’t have kids, so I can’t make any recommendations as to whether or not I would recommend this to children, but it is fun and enjoyable, and as I’ve said, charming. However, I do hope this is a stand-alone. While there’s certainly more story that could be told, I don’t think it needs to be, and would rather see something new and original (or mostly original, depending on how one interprets appendices) from the author next. But this is cute and fun, easy to recommend to adults provided they are well aware they are NOT the target audience.
Cover Commentary: The lettering of my hardcover is a rainbow foil that looks rather pretty in the light, and the art is nicely done. Inside, each chapter has an illustration from Mark Buckingham (who also illustrates Fables), and a gorgeous map on the inside covers. Despite not being the biggest fan of Buckingham’s work, his illustrations work wonderfully here. I’m especially fond of any illustration involving McTavish.